The notion that the music industry is corrupt certainly isn't new--rock history is rife with scandalous tales of shifty, smooth-talking label weasels sticking it to unsuspecting musicians in orifices best probed only by proctologists. Sal Canzonieri, guitarist for New Jersey's legendary punk-and-roll forefathers, Electric Frankenstein, has heard them all. As a veteran of the New York music scene for nearly two decades, Canzonieri has seen more than his fair share of rock acts get shafted by corporate suits in what he refers to as the "great anti-rock conspiracy," and he, for one, is tired of it.
"Bands have basically been slaves since the Fifties," he declares, sounding equal parts Jello Biafra and Jimmy Hoffa. "In fact, most labels still use the same contracts that they used back then to rip off the R&B bands. They are no different. Major labels like to control what people buy, and they don't want them to buy rock music. If they had it their way, they would have bands do everything as work-for-hire. They would have them write the songs and get lost. But it doesn't work that way.
"Instead," he continues, "they use these sly little tricks to screw over bands...tricks I've found out about from friends of mine who did A&R for these labels and then quit once they understood what was happening. Like, they'd sign bands--well-known bands that you, me and everybody else has heard of--and then tell them that they weren't allowed to do any press or live shows until they finished their record. Then, a year later, when they were finished with the record, they'd tell them, 'Oh, I'm sorry. We've decided we're not going to put out that kind of music, so we're not going to release your disc. And, oh yeah, you're not allowed to buy it back either.' So basically, they preempt these groups, take them out of the picture for a year and ruin them. This has happened to all sorts of bands that we all know about, and all of them are rock bands. It's a real tricky thing, and it's big labels that everybody knows that are doing this."
The guitarist goes on to describe additional tales of major-label treachery--stories of false number-crunching, payoffs and legal mumbo jumbo--that make the JFK assassination sound like a lame episode of the Twilight Zone. It's the sort of far-fetched yarn you'd expect to hear from a raving kook or, worse yet, a jilted songwriter. But Canzonieri is neither of these. On the contrary, the loquacious forty-year-old is quite level-headed; by day, he is a writer for the telecommunications industry, and in his spare time he practices the martial arts (he holds the equivalent of a black belt in kung fu). And Electric Frankenstein certainly isn't hurting for offers or label help--in the last few years alone, the five-piece (now featuring Canzonieri, vocalist/guitarist Steve Miller, guitarist Jim Foster, bassist Dan Canzonieri and drummer Rob Sefcik) has released nearly twenty singles, three EPs and four LPs, including their latest and greatest, How to Make a Monster, on Chicago's Victory Records.
So why does Canzonieri care what transpires in the world of corporate rock and major labels when his band thrives happily outside of that realm? As corny as it may sound, the members of Electric Frankenstein love rock and roll, and they don't want to see it destroyed by people who don't. As a result, Canzonieri speaks on behalf of the genre whenever he's given the chance--whether it be through interviews, the Internet or the liner notes inside CD jackets. But thus far, the band's best weapon in the war against rock has been its music. For the last eight years, Electric Frankenstein has proved that straight-up, three-chord bump-and-grind is as vital today as it was when Chuck Berry did his first duck walk. Naturally, the combo has updated the sound considerably since then, injecting it with near-lethal doses of metal, punk and glam. But it's still rock with a capital "R": raw, visceral and, above all, fun.
According to Canzonieri, fun has always been a priority for the band. "When we first got together, we were all sick of just about everything," he explains. "We had all been in bands previously--John was with Adrenaline O.D., my brother [Dan] was with Christian Death and some other bands for a while, and I had played with the Thing and toured Europe and everything--and we were just tired of the whole business side of it, who was cheating who and all that. So we just said, 'Fuck it. We're going to play what we were playing when we were seventeen.' AC/DC, KISS, Motorhead, the Sex Pistols, the Misfits. We just took the whole thing and mixed all the sounds together. The first year we were together, we didn't even play out live or anything. In fact, we had no intention of doing anything other than have a good time."
Unfortunately, the record companies felt otherwise. After hearing Frankenstein tapes recorded at studio sessions and radio appearances, the buzz surrounding the group grew damned near deafening. After much coaxing, Canzonieri and company agreed to make an appearance at a nearby club in New York City. To this day, the guitarist still remembers the pressure of the experience. "It was really strange," he recalls. "We started getting all these calls out of the blue from clubs in New York offering us slots on Saturday night, which is a really big deal there. So we were like, 'We better not be stupid. We might as well take it.' Our first show ever turned out to be showcase for, like, twelve label reps."
Stunned by the escapade, Electric Frankenstein retreated back to the studio, only to resurface a year later to perform for a similar mob. By this time, however, Canzonieri and his mates had already laid the groundwork for their first album, the aptly titled The Time Is Now, and a contract with a major wasn't part of the plan. Rather, the combo agreed to distribute all the songs as singles to a variety of respectable, albeit broke, independent labels, and the vinyl version of the LP was contracted to Nitro! For the CD, the band went to Kado/Nesak, an obscure imprint Canzonieri describes as "sort of a Jersey thing. At the time, my brother was working there, and the owner, Marty Kasen, said he would be interested in putting out our CD. It was originally a Muzak label, and then it sort of branched into world music, which is where they make most of their money.
"The whole thing worked out great by me," he continues. "The way I've always seen it, the band has to come first, whereas with most people it seems to get it all ass-backwards. They worry about labels, press, all that stuff. With Nesak, we didn't have to sign any long-term contract. And we were able to promote the music for what it was, instead relying on hype. That's why we didn't put any pictures on the record." Initially, the idea of seeing The Time Is Now alongside such Kado favorites as the Didgeridoos: Sounds of the Aborigine and Songs of the Southern Humpback Whale seemed strange to punk fans used to seeing Epitaph and Lookout! stamped on the back of their discs. But the Frankensteins didn't seem to mind. In fact, they enjoyed working with the label so much, they released their next two efforts on Kado as well, the critically acclaimed Electric Frankenstein Conquers the World and its equally well-received follow-up, Sick Songs. Meanwhile, the hubbub surrounding the band continued to swell.
Alternative Press awarded Conquers a glowing four-star review, calling it "as enveloping as a hot bed of quicksand," and Guitar World dubbed the outfit no less than "one of the five best rock bands in the world." In 1997, Electric Frankenstein sealed its destiny as kings of the Nineties punk rock-and-roll movement when the group recorded the EP, Monster, with former F-Word frontman and L.A. punk icon Rik L Rik. "While we were in Los Angeles, Rik came up on stage and sang with us," says Canzonieri of the event. "Au-Go-Go heard about it and offered us a chance to do a record with him. It was the twentieth anniversary of punk, and everybody wanted to hear Rik L Rik do something again. So we said okay. It was originally supposed to be covers of only his songs. But once we got in the studio, we ended up doing some originals as well. It was a fun time."
Some would say Electric Frankenstein has become an icon in its own right, at least among rock's underground elite. Everyone from Nashville Pussy to the Hellacopters to the Bell Rays has cited the quintet as an influence, and indies as diverse as Estrus, Man's Ruin and Reptilian have sought out its material. To this point, the band has sold more than 100,000 records--a staggering figure, considering they rarely tour. But for Canzonieri, who also dabbles in illustration and design, the best part about the Frankenstein phenom is the cover artwork he receives from his favorite poster and underground-comics artists, all of whom are fans of the group. As for the artists themselves, appearing on a Frankenstein single or LP has become a badge of honor of sorts: Thus far, the group's albums have sported illustrations by the likes of Rob Orzechowski, Art Chantry, Frank Kozik and Coop. And, if the guitarist has his way, there will be plenty more where those came from. "That's really why we put out so many records," he confesses. "We want to accommodate all the great artists that have sent us stuff over the years. I'm a big collector of comics and monster mags, so when I find out these great artists like our stuff, it's a big deal to me. I'm like, 'Oh, we've got to put something out so we can use this!'"
Judging from Electric Frankenstein's recent tide of success, Canzonieri may run out of material sooner than he thinks. Already, How to Make a Monster is receiving critical raves, and the outfit's recent European tour found them playing for crowds of 2,000 and 3,000 people. ("It's kind of an emotional feeling," the guitarist notes. "After all these years of doing the work and playing out, it felt really good watching all these people singing along, and shouting out song titles.") In addition, the boys already have several more songs in the works, including collaborations with Los Angeles's Street Walkin' Cheetahs, Monster Magnet's Phil Caivano, and the king of New Yawk rock himself, Joey Ramone. But the project currently consuming the ever-occupied Canzonieri is a six-CD boxed set he is compiling, in the vein of Lenny Kaye's Nuggets collection, which chronicles the entire history of the so-called American punk rock-and-roll movement. Entitled A Fist Full of Rock and Roll, the first volume is slated to be released on Tee Pee Records this November and will contain cuts by the Supersuckers, the Hookers, Fearless Leader and the Lazy Cowgirls, as well as several of the style's earlier progenitors. The liner notes will be penned by Canzonieri himself and will, as he puts it, "show the thread of how raw rock has always been around, and how it's always been in this sort of boxing match with pop music and the music industry.
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"It's basically just a collection of bands that have been influenced by the whole history of rock and roll, as opposed to any certain movements," he adds. "In other words, not bands who are fronting their sound, but those who really live their roots. Bands that are extensions of rock history, basically."
Which raises the obvious question: If the music industry has it out for rock, will there be anybody out there who will want listen to a project such as his in, say, ten years? After all, pundits have been decrying the genre's death for years. Canzonieri, however, has faith. "The labels' plans to kill off rock are already backfiring," he notes. "Instead, all the rock bands are getting bigger--bands like Buckcherry are starting to do well on the charts--so now, all of a sudden, they [the labels] are trying to save face and making it look like they support it. I've been reading that Garth Brooks is even planning on recording a rock album now. He's growing his hair out and going around in interviews telling people what a big KISS fan he is. And a lot of rap labels are starting to buy out rock band's contracts. So now everybody is saying 'We couldn't fight it, we couldn't kill it, so we might as well join it.'"
You can bet they'll have to get through Electric Frankenstein first.
Electric Frankenstein, with the Dwarves and Superbuick. 8 p.m. Saturday, July 31, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue, $10, 303-830-6700.